This engraving is from the German-born Jesuit Athanasius Kircher's ground-breaking book in oriental studies entitled China Illustrata. It was first published in Amsterdam in 1667 CE in Latin, and almost immediately translated into Dutch, French and English. In its day, it was a publishing success story. It exerted a significant influence on people's ideas all over Europe.
When I look at this engraving, it seems to exude rich odors of old, but not-all-that-old European stereotypes about heathen idol worship. To be sure, portraits such as this one doubtlessly had their own influences on the negative mental images lurking in occidental minds. If there is something Egyptian-looking about it, that's not accidental. One main thesis of Kircher's book is that all of oriental religion actually came from the west and had its origins in Egypt. Bits of Egyptianizing, Persianizing and Sinicizing tendencies may be discerned here. Europeanizing, too. Do you see it? One thing that appears — to my eye at least — to be missing is any visual clue that would tell us that this scene is supposed to be taking place in Tibet.
While Kircher's ideas about Egyptian hieroglyphics and their relation to Chinese ideograms were later discounted and today regarded as highly laughable, to give just one example of the colossal wrong turns his brilliant mind sometimes took, it would be wrong of us to forget his positive role in widening knowledge of Asia in Europe. This would be just another tediously predictable example of the modern world's complex that consists in building up its self-image by dismissing the past with a sneer. We post-moderns need to get past it, really. Otherwise what would the "post-" mean?
(Right, some say it's code for 'hyper-' and that might not be far off.)Looking at this picture also reminds us that there were problems in the transmission of knowledge that resulted in distorted pictures such as this. It wasn't all the fault of deliberate misrepresentation, either. Kircher never visited Asia, and the bulk of his book is in fact devoted to a Chinese & Syriac inscription made by Nestorian Christians during the Tang Dynasty. 'Discovered' in 1625, it had created a sensation and a little controversy in Europe (Hsia's article in Findlen's book, and also the Billings article).
This news was considered by some 'too good to be true.' In particular, a Protestant scholar named George Horn accused the Jesuits of self-interested fraud. Since Kircher had written on this monument before, he had both a personal and institutional stake in the arguments that had been made meanwhile. I suppose he needed to defend his honor and his credibility, as we all do, or think we do, from time to time. It might also be significant that as a young man he twice petitioned his Jesuit order to send him as a missionary to China, but was both times turned down.
He sat in his library and his museum in Rome. He based what he knew on missionary and travelers' reports both oral and written, most important for Tibeto-logical purposes being those of John Grueber who journeyed together with Albert d'Orville in 1661 from Peking, past the Blue Lake (Koko Nor, or in Tibetan Tso Ngön) to Lhasa, to "Necbal," to India, where d'Orville understandably expired from sheer exhaustion. In those days, people took notes on what they saw and often made sketches as best they could. When it came time to publish their books, the engravers took their clues from the notes and sketches and did the best they could. This meant considerable leeway in interpretation, Europeanizing things or otherwise distorting them in curious directions.
This engraving, a prime example, is supposed to depict the god Manipe. The name Manipe, not a name known to Tibetans, results from a misinterpretation of the Six Syllable Mantra that then as now was and is most likely to be on Tibetan lips: Om Mani Padme Hum (Tibetans pronounce Padme as pemey). Kircher mistakenly thought the mantra meant, "Manipe save us!"
Donald Lopez, in his book Prisoners of Shangrila (page 117), quotes from the 1669 English version of China Illustrata, part of its description of the "Tangut" religion of Lhasa:
[It] hath a King of its own, and is altogether intangled with the foul Errours of Heathenism, it worshippeth Idols with the difference of Deities; among which they call Menipe, hath the preheminence, and with its ninefold difference of Heads, riseth or terminateth in a Cone of monstrous height... Before this Demon or false God this foolish people performeth their Sacred Rites with many unwonted Gesticulations and Dances, often repeating of these words: O Manipe Mi Hum, O Manipe Mi Hum, that is, O Manipe, save us; and these sottish people are wont to set many sorts of viands and meats before the idol for the propitiating or appeasing of the Deity, and perform such abominations of idolatry.
We ought to compare Van Tuyl's (p. 65) independent translation into modern English, but here we will just supply a part that immediately follows. By "our fathers" he means, of course, Grueber & d'Orville. From this part, at least we may know that there were some drawings for the engraver to work from. Evidently it was Grueber who had the artistic talent:
Our fathers, to illustrate the blind folly of these nations worthy of the pity of lamentation, drew the idol in the form they saw it. Figure XVII shows the idol in the form they saw it. However, they also sent it to me in the form shown by Figure XXI. (These figures, combined in a single engraving, will be reproduced below.)
In Tibetan culture, since at least the 11th century (and probably as tradition would have it going far back into the time of the Tibetan Empire) Buddhists have been repeating the Six Syllables as part of the cult (not in the scary journalistic sense of the word 'cult' of course, but here corresponding to devotional and/or sadhana practice) of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, particularly in the 4-armed form Mahakarunika (Thugjé Chenpo), Great Compassion. It should suffice to say that Tibetans won't recognize anything of themselves in Kircher's description, and would be very right to take offense with him, or even with me for bothering to type it out for the whole world to read.
Now look again at the picture, try to temporarily overcome your revulsion, however righteous, and see how the decapitated heads are piled up as if they were cannonballs on top of the altar together with the offerings. Think for a moment, how many cannonballs would it take to make such a pyramid? I know, you can see that six heads are visible, but how many more would it take to complete the three-dimensional pyramid? Got it? Hold that number securely in your mind.
Now have a look at this detail from a 15th-century image of 11-faced Avalokiteshvara from the Rubin Museum (item no. 88, with many more examples here).
If you are still with me, I guess by now you've understood that the placement of the heads on the altar, weirdly separated from the body of the Bodhisattva, is entirely due to the engraver's misunderstanding. He was very literally unable to imagine the form of the deity correctly on the basis of the directions he received. That the illustrations in China Illustrata were not satisfactory was noticed by the surviving Tibet-traveler Grueber, who wrote to Kircher saying,
I wish you had at least sent me the headings of the chapters before going to press; I should certainly have supplied you with several data of no small importance. These I intend to send you at some future time — perhaps shortly, together with the whole of my journal, which as yet I have not been able to finish on account of my continuous work among the soldiers. (Note: he served as an army chaplain for Austrian soldiers in Transylvania.)
There are certainly points in China Illustrata that need correction, especially the drawings, but it is better to leave things as they are, though I shall send you the emendations for insertion in case the work should be reprinted. (See the Wessels book, p. 168.)
One of those points that required correction was, if you've been paying close attention, the number of heads, which Kircher — once again mistaken — counted as nine. Neither Grueber's book manuscript nor his journal has ever been found, and we are largely reliant on Kircher (and of course on a few surviving letters) for the little we know of his travels.
I don't want to lock horns, not today at least, with Kircher about whether or not the Egyptians were the first or, failing that, the most influential people to conceive the idea to build dwellings for divine or spirit presences of one kind or another and then treat them to human hospitality.
(Anyway, ancient Israelite temple cult wasn't all that different from other parts of the Middle East... The incense burning, lamp lighting, food offerings and prostrations in our frontispiece were all done there as well. Only the 'empty niche' syndrome would seem to have set Jerusalem apart; see Haran.)
I'll just state what I know with assurance to be true, by saying I don't know who started it or where. I doubt you do either.
I also don't want to get into one of those very important 'Big' debates about intellectual or theological or moral superiority of one religion over another. Not today. In modern inter-religious dialog, we don't speak of arguments for religious supremacy or superiority, but talk instead about problems with "triumphalism." Wording seems significant, significance not that much...
Today I intended to talk about something immensely more trivial, touched off by this and another recent blog entry from Tibetan Buddhist Digital Altar about the Chinese-style bell at Tandruk Temple near Tsetang. A photograph of that bell, taken by the late Hugh Richardson, shows a strange and inexplicable hand-print that at least appears to be impressed into the metal, just as we often see handprints (and footprints) in Tibet pressed into solid rock. (I hate to ask you to take my word for it, but anybody who has spent much time around Tibetans knows how ordinary and common these miraculous objects are.) This bell, like the earlier and very similar one at Samyé Monastery, was sponsored by an Empress, a Queen of Trisongdetsen, one of five, who later became a nun (her story is told in Uebach's essay, pages 40 to 42).
That these bells are in the usual Chinese style, as we can know by just looking at the overall shape, is underlined by the fact that the Tibetan sources even borrow the Chinese name for 'bell' which is otherwise but rarely encountered in Tibetan. The Chinese word is:
The Tibetan borrowing is pronounced chong:
The usual Tibetan word for the bell, usually meaning the small handbell that looks like this — ࿄is drilbu:
***These Tibetan words and images were produced on what is known as a "unicode picker," which you can try for yourself at this site.
So, anyway, what is this we see near the back of Kircher's book?
- You can see a later engraving of the same scene here.
On your left, the "Campana Erfordiensis," and on your right, weighing in at an amazing 120,000 pounds is the "Campana Pekinensis." Well, translating the Latin labels into English, what we have here are a Bell of Erford and a Bell of Pekin[g] (which would be Beijing to you younger people). In the text of the accompanying letter by Brother Ferdinand Verbist in Pequin (!) to Brother Grueber in Siganfu, as translated by Van Tuyl, we read:
In the year 1403 A.D. the king of China named Yum lo [i.e., Yung-lo, or Yongle, my note] was the first to move the royal court from Nankin to Pekin. In order to leave an eternal name for posterity he caused huge bells to be cast of bronze, all of them of equal size and weight... Kircher on page 522 of his Musurgia mentions the largest European bells. There is none greater, according to Fr. Kircher, than that of Erford. Of this he says, "The Erford bell is the queen of bells." Just before this he says, "The Erford bell is the greatest, not only of Germany, but of the entire world." These bells of Pekin, however, are larger, since each weighs 120,000 pounds, and each pound is equal to sixteen European ounces...
Now the name "Erford" as a name for a place in Germany will prove fairly fruitless when placed in today's Schmooglebox. Try "Erfurt" instead. The Erfurt Cathedral bell — like most Catholic bells it received a name, generally at a kind of christening or "bell blessing" (whether or not it receives, or ought to receive, a proper consecration or a "baptism" is a matter of contention) — was named Maria Gloriosa. We may learn from the "Catholic Encyclopedia" that the Maria Gloriosa was cast in 1497, and weighed 13 tons. It was rung for the first time two years later.
Some at least of the Yongle bells are still in existence, along with the tower built for it or them (how many were made and how many of them survive in which places?), in Beijing, due north of the Imperial Palace.
You can compare the numbers for yourself:
Erford Bell: 8 cubits, 5 fingers high.Pekin Bell: 12 cubits.Erford Bell: 7 cubit, 1 finger diameter.Pekin Bell: 10 cubits, 8 digits diameter.Erford Bell: approximately 25,400 pounds in weight.Pekin Bell: 120,000 pounds.
Let's just state briefly that bells have, at least in more recent centuries, come to have similar central symbolic meanings in the two religions. In Buddhism, the bell is one of the most important symbols (along with the cry of the cuckoo, the beat of the drum...) of the awakening sound of Buddha Speech (among other things). In Christianity, it has come to symbolize the 'good news' of the Gospels (among other things). Both religious cultures also use them as 'time markers' to mark off regularly scheduled prayers or chanting sessions... Medieval Christians believed the sound of the bell exorcised the surroundings of evil spirits and kept thunderstorms at bay. Similar, but OK, also different... I'll save the documentation and arguments about usage and symbolism for another time.
Of course bells with their comparative weights and sizes were not the only calculations taking place in those days between the two religious cultures. By the late 17th century, Europeans had been made aware of Chinese written records that pushed their continuous history back to 2952 BCE, which very closely mismatched Christian calculations of the date of the Noahide flood at 2957 BCE (Hung's article, p. 258). Europeans started asking questions that sometimes ended in reassessments or even major readjustments of their then-scientific understandings of the universal flood (perhaps it didn't reach as far as China?) and the tower of Babel (perhaps the Chinese lived too far away to help build it, and so preserved a more pristine and 'unconfused' language?).
(And just as an aside, these arguments are hardly over and finished. In the contemporary debates in the U.S. between creationists and evolutionists the former have resurrected some of those very old arguments from the 17th century. Like the interpretation of a Chinese word for 'boat' analyzed into parts that then is read "boat eight mouths." Just try Schmoogling something like "Noah China Flood" and you'll find quite a few webpages devoted to this. I remember first seeing it as a child, in a late 19th-century edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and found it quite impressive at the time. This Christian search for 'signs' in Chinese ideograms, and its selective appropriation of Chinese mythology, is a fascinating field for research in its own right. For the moment I'll just say that stories of floods in extra-Biblical sources do not go toward proving the Biblical flood any more [or less] than Biblical flood stories prove any particular story of extra-Biblical floods...)
I wonder, could this episode of Christian bell inferiority be the 'primal scene' (to take a page from Freudian depth psychology only to crumple it up) or historic trauma that would explain the psychological complex that has gone on to motivate Christian-Buddhist bell exchanges in subsequent history? Could it take part in explaining how a Buddhist bell cast in 1750 ended up at the Maryknoll Seminary in Palo Alto, California? Along with other examples we've considered in earlier blogs.
But history is a complex subject, too complex to reduce to singular psychic complexes, I would insist. We could say that the Buddhist and Christian worlds experienced phases of bell exchange followed by bouts of bell competition, perhaps (I say "perhaps" because I actually detest these broad historical strokes and the grand theories that drive them) mirroring the phases of openings and closures of their respective cultures vis-a-vis one another.
Think, too, about international political positions such as "Open Door Policy" and "containment." Think about the early Sinophiles (Liebnitz & Voltaire being the most prominent, they often argued for Chinese priority and superiority) and subsequent Sinophobes in Europe. I'm just saying, Think about it.
Perhaps these are just the shy first steps of hope and fear that make so many of our human relations so anxiety ridden. Perhaps they are just signs of the future happiness of living together, or even a lasting marriage, between Buddhists and Christians, between Asia and Europe? I guess we'll see. I'm guessing, too, that it will have a lot to do with what we do meanwhile. Perhaps, perhaps & perhaps.
As you might have expected, the Euro-bell size-deficiency trauma was definitively dissolved when it was pointed out that the Great Bell of Moscow (first made in 15th century and recast in 1653?) was bigger than either the Maria Gloriosa or the Yongle bell[s]. Hurrah for Russia! (But this only holds for Kircher's time... even bigger bells have been made since, but why should we care about them?)
The Catholic Encyclopedia discounts this and all those other eastern bells by saying something that may hold truth, although rather beside the point if you ask me and a prime example of what I like to call definitional gerrymandering,
The gigantic bells cast in Russia, China, Japan and Burma seem only to be struck with a hammer and never properly 'rung'.
Notice that word "properly," which allows the Catholic writer to ignore bells that after all are bells that are indeed larger than the Catholic bells that he had just finished listing along with their respective tonnages. Anyway, with all their careful measurements in cubits and pounds they forgot to measure the decibles, or even more useful, I'd say, they forgot to say which rang more true. On that last point, you will be the judge, I'm sure.
§ § § § §
- XVII. The idol Menipe in the city Barantola of the Kingdom Lassa.
- XXI. Another idol of Menipe.
More books & stuff you might want to add on top of that ever-growing pile on your desk until you finally get around to reading it all:
Athanasius Kircher, S.J., China Illustrata with Sacred and Secular Monuments, Various Spectacles of Nature and Art and Other Memorabilia, translated from the Latin by Charles Van Tuyl, Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies (Bloomington 1987). The only nice online version of the original Latin publication I could find is this one. Try this link to go directly to the page with the bells. You might also try this one. There used to be an Athanasius Kircher Society, but it went the way of the dinosaurs.
Adolf Müller, Athanasius Kircher, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton Co. (New York 1910), accessed June 28, 2009 here.
C. Wessels, S.J., Early Jesuit Travellers in Central Asia, 1603-1721, Asian Educational Services (New Delhi 1992), reprint of 1924 edition.
Paula Findlen, ed., Athanasius Kircher, the Last Man Who Knew Everything, Routledge (New York 2004). Lots of interesting writing here, but most relevant is the article by Florence Hsia — Athanasius Kircher's China Illustrata (1667), an Apologia Pro Vita Sua. And Haun Saussy's paper "Magnetic Language" is also fun to read, considering the part Kircher may have played in imagining computers and 'artificial intelligence.'
Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, University of Chicago (Chicago 1998).
Timothy Billings, Jesuit Fish in Chinese Nets: Athanasius Kircher and the Translation of the Nestorian Tablet, Representations, no. 84 (Summer 2004), pp. 1-42. A fascinating study showing how Kircher reframed the Xi'an inscription as a proto-Jesuit document, glossing over doctrinal controversies associated with the Nestorians.
Menahem Haran, Temples and Temple Service in Ancient Israel, Eisenbrauns (Winona Lake 1985). One of my favorite books ever, right up there with with The Art of Memory by Frances A. Yates. I've read it twice. I'm thinking I'll read it again very soon.
Helga Uebach, Ladies of the Tibetan Empire (Seventh to Ninth Centuries C.E.). Contained in: Janet Gyatso & Hanna Havnevik, eds., Women in Tibet, Hurst & Co. (London 2005), pp. 29-48.
Ho-Fung Hung, Orientalist Knowledge & Social Theories: China and the European Conceptions of East-West Differences from 1600 to 1900, Sociological Theory, vol. 21, no. 3 (September 2003), pp. 254-280.
Christopher Hutton, Human Diversity and the Genealogy of Languages: Noah as the Founding Ancestor of the Chinese, Language Sciences, vol. 30 (2008), pp. 512-528. There was in Europe a "craze for identifying legendary Chinese emperors with Biblical patriarchs," that "declined by the second half of the eighteenth century." Another work by the same Hong Kong professor (no access so far) deals with the ways some of these same people engaged in "etymological readings of Chinese characters as encoding the story of Genesis."
Wendel Westcott, Bells and Their Music, G.P. Puttman (New York 1970), available online here.
From the end of Chapter Two:The fourteenth century seemed, indeed, to mark a turning point in the development of bells. It was now possible to cast tower bells weighing several tons. This was to lead, later, to rivalries between churches, and even cities, to see who could boast the largest bell. Perhaps by this time the artisans of Europe had learned that the Chinese had long since cast large bells, or perhaps economic conditions were more favorable.
(Note: I don't think this is quite right. The late 17th century, not the 14th, was when Europeans realized how small their bells were compared to those of China.)
"Great Bells of Europe by Country." Press here.
Catholic Encyclopedia, "Bells." Press here.
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There is a truly dreadful legend about how the bell caster's daughter had to sacrifice her life in the casting the Yongle bell[s]. This legend may be found in various forms around the internet, with perhaps the most detailed version here. (If the link doesn't work, go to Googlebooks and search for A Chinese Wonder Book by Norman Hinsdale Pitman.) Another version says that it has its sweet sound only because eight men were sacrificed in the making of it. So I don't know which legend is more true or more dreadful.
If you find time, try Schmoogling for "Yongle Bell Tower Beijing" or "Erfurt Cathedral Bell." You might be amazed what you can come up with. If you're equipped with German I recommend this video at You-Tube about how the bell was removed for repair. Once you get there, have a look at the prose description (by clicking the words "more info"), where there is a transcription of the Latin inscription on the Maria Gloriosa, with a German translation:
Aufschrift: Laude patronos cano gloriosa / Fulgus arcens et demones malignos / Sacra templis a populo sonanda / Carmine pulso / Gerhardus wou de Campis me fecit. / Anno Dni M. CCCC.XCV II.
Mit ruhmreichem Lob besinge ich die Schutzherren, wehre Blitze und böse Geister ab, läute m.hl. Gesang, der im Dom vom Volk erklingen soll. Gerhardus Wou aus Kampen hat mich gemacht. Im Jahr des Herrn 1497.
Note: Kampen is not far to the east of Amsterdam.
§ § § § §
Another interesting bell inscription from the Catholic Encyclopedia "Bells" entry:
Funera plango fulmina frango sabbata pangoExcito lentos dissipo ventos paco cruentos.At obsequies I mourn, the thunderbolts I scatter, I ring in the sabbaths;I hustle the sluggards, I drive away storms, I proclaim peace after bloodshed.
§ § § § §
Schuyler Cammann, in a brief article entitled "The Bell that Lost Its Voice," published in 1947 in the journal called Folklore, reported on a visit to a bell tower in Kunming, provincial capital of Yunnan. Let me quote him exactly on what he found there, since it is all rather curious:
It is a triumph of casting. At least ten feet high, and fully eight feet in diameter, its blue-green surface is perfectly smooth except for the dragon-loop by which it is hung, and a narrow vertical band running down each side with Tibetan-style Buddhist thunderbolts (dorje), in low relief. This unusual motif would suggest that the foreign wizard [my note: Cammann mentioned a legend that said it was made by a foreigner, but read further on] was probably a Tibetan, though the lama's great skill at metal-casting seldom extends to objects as large as this bell.
Notice the size, which anyway is a guesstimate. Although large, it would seem to be significantly smaller than the Yongle bells. But then look what he says at the end of the article. The bell actually has an inscription:
A panel on the upper side of the bell gives the date of its casting as "the twenty-second year of Yung-lo in the Ming Dynasty," or 1422 A.D....
It is a Yongle bell.
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For a continuation of the story, adding in essential Burmese episodes from the bell history between Buddhists and Christians, go over to Tibetan Altar blog by pressing the link here.
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William Rostoker, Bennet Bronson & James Dvorak, The Cast-Iron Bells of China, Technology & Culture, vol. 25, no. 4 (October 1984), pp. 750-767, at p. 751:
The epitome of this practice was the great bronze bell cast in the Yongle period (1403-24) of the Ming dynasty, now housed in the reconstructed Jueshing Temple in Beijing. [here footnote 5 says this temple has been renamed "Temple of the Great Bell"] Perhaps the largest bell ever made, it is 6.75 meters in overall height, 3.3 meters in base diameter, and 18.5 centimeters thick at the lip, and it weighs 46.5 metric tons. The metal is bronze with 16.4 percent tin and 1.12 percent lead. Cast onto its outer and inner surfaces are the texts of seventeen Buddhist scriptures and prayers comprising a total of 227,000 characters. As is characteristic of such bells, the inscriptions are not impressed into the surface but rather raised above it, showing clearly that they were cut or stamped into the face of the mold before the bell was cast.
Of course the words "the largest bell ever made" are not true. But then who's keeping track?
I'm interested to know more about which Buddhist scriptures were inscribed, and in which language (some of it was in Sanskrit language, they say, but which script? Sanskrit in Chinese ideograms? Sanskrit in Tibetan letters, perhaps? Lantsa? Siddham?). Some say that the Lotus Sutra "and six others" were inscribed. I haven't yet gained access to any detailed description or study. I imagine there ought to be plenty.